Thursday, May 31, 2018

10 YEAR REUNION: Kiuas - The Spirit of Ukko

A bitter man, a void embraced

The benefit of hindsight has really made this album significantly better, hasn't it?  For the time travelers amongst us, we should have known that this couldn't last.  Kiuas started off as some sort of blasphemous creation that has no business existing on this plane of reality, so it was only a matter of time before they had to shed their extra layers to eventually pass as human.  In plain English, what I mean is that The Spirit of Ukko and Reformation saw Kiuas step onto the scene as something truly unique, taking influence from so many different branches of the metal family tree while still somehow remaining unified and cohesive, and it made them almost defy classification.  By the time The New Dark Age rolled around, they had dropped pretty much everything except punchy mid paced power metal from their sound, and I couldn't even tell you what Lustdriven sounded like because nobody actually listened to it, since the whole reason everybody fell in love with them in the first place is because they were so creative and unlike anything else, so who the fuck wants to hear them drop all of the cool parts?

So what this means is that their debut here marked a very special point in time, when they were young and hungry and completely unafraid to take any risks, because The Spirit of Ukko is quite a risky album, particularly in comparison to the humdrum safety of the second half of their career.  To understand the sheer eccentricity displayed here, consider that the most accurate description of this album would be "Epic Melodic Power/Death/Black/Thrash/Heavy/Folk Metal", and I'm not even kidding when I say that apart from power metal being the obvious base of the music, all of the outside oddities are displayed with equal strength, oftentimes within the course of one single song.  Take a gander at the opener, the title track.  It opens with straight meloblack tremolo picking and crazy fast blasting, but the melody is a bit more on the epic power metal side, with stinging keys accenting the note changes.  And then with a simple change in rhythm, without losing pace at all, it morphs into a more overtly melodeath riff, with the synth stings hitting even harder than they were previously.  That slows itself even further into a midpaced heavy/power metal groove, and all the while the main theme has stayed consistent.  After a short segue, it starts rocketing through a pinch harmonic laden thrash riff with subtle smatterings of melodeath, building upon itself larger and larger until the guitars start shredding and give way to Ilja Jalkanen's iconic voice, a lower tenor with enough oomph to launch a cannonball with just enough grit to sand it clean on the way out.  His full on cleans simulate the majestic soaring of... well, a god damned cannonball, and the harsh vocals that he doesn't utilize quite as often but still often enough to keep the variety unpredictable hit like a... fucking cannonball.  In between his vocal lines in this first verse, the riffs switch from beefy melodeath with a titanium backbone to equally strong power metal keyboard melodies, which eventually overtake the song and deliver a chorus that's just straight ahead crunchy power metal.  And that's just the first two minutes of the first song.  The fact that the band somehow managed to take this completely fucked-out mishmash of genres on paper and turn it into something that sounds like the most natural progression on the planet is nothing short of stunning.

Despite all of the genre hopping, the songs are all more or less recognizable as straight ahead power metal with little room for debate.  "Warrior Soul" showcases this the best, as it's probably the most "normal" of the good songs on display, and even then Jalkanen flails all over the place, utilizing his amazingly versatile voice in as many interesting ways he can think of while simultaneously giving us the best chorus on the album.  Seriously that hook is unreal, it's stuck in my head right now and I'm not even listening to that song.  "On Winds of Death We Ride" is potentially my favorite song on the record thanks to the pure thrash of the verses and the most venomous delivery the dudes can muster.  For real, the "Like beasts we now just SEEK OUR PREeEeEYyY" part makes me want to rip my own head off in an adrenaline fueled fugue, and that first natural harmonic run that explodes into furious blasting death is just head-spinningly masterful.  Special shoutout goes to "Across the Snows" as well for exploring the folkier side of the band, featuring a cool cleanly sung Finnish section and one of the hypest fucking build-and-release intros of 2005.

"Awesome!  What about the rest of the songs?"

The production on the album is excellently meaty, letting the riffs tear chunks of flesh off of every nearby flesh-having entity.  The drumming in particular stands out purely for how hard they pound despite the patterns themselves not being nearly as creative as the overall songwriting and riffing.  The Spirit of Ukko is very thunderous in this regard, and it's a huge boon to the album's overall enjoyment.

"Um, that's cool and all but didn't answer my question.  How are the rest of the songs?"

The uhh, did I talk about the vocals enough?  I feel like it's not mentioned often enough, but I can sense an almost grungy tone to his more snarly and theatrical vocals.  I think that's a neat feature, his voice is unique enough on its own but that inflection he has on the mid range croons are really cool and something I really haven't heard before or afterwards in the context of power metal.

"BH, how are the rest of the s-"

THE REST OF THE ALBUM SUCKS, OKAY??  Fuck I hate this part so much but it's true, apart from the four songs I namedropped up there earlier there is nothing at all worth listening to here.  All that eclectic fire finds itself conspicuously absent throughout half of the album, and even when the band does stray into more interesting territory, it's always too little too late.  "Until We Reach the Shore" has a wicked keyboard solo but it's only after several minutes of plodding chug riffs that go fucking nowhere on their own.  "And the North Star Cried" has a cool breakdown to round out its intro but the rest of the song is so lame and pointless that I don't care to sit through it.  The remaining two tracks have no redeeming features whatsoever, being quasi-ballady chugpower dullardry.  It's hard to even spend time on this part of the review because seriously, I said it all already.  So little happens during these songs.  It's baffling to me how a band who can so effortlessly exude such boundless creativity and tie it all together in such a concise and powerful package can also be responsible for such maddeningly inconsequential crap.  This is sort of a harbinger of what would eventually signal the band's precipitous fall, and it's why I'll never bother to review their other albums.  These four songs will soon stretch the runtimes of full albums, and god dammit nobody wants to listen to the sixteen squintillionth generic hookless chuggy midpaced "power" metal band.  There's a reason "Warrior Soul" is such a celebrated monument of eccentric power metal and why most fans of the band forgot "Thorns of a Black Rose" existed until this sentence.

This is a really difficult album to score, because the high points are so high and the low points are so frustrating and disappointing.  The album's momentum is inconsistent thanks to almost every weak track falling between two good ones, so it's constantly starting and stopping and just lurching forwards on a hobbled foot.  The excellent vocals can't save the lame songs, the badass riffs only exist on the great songs, it's almost like The Spirit of Ukko is truly a split album between Kiuas and Nega-Kiuas.  The songs that sound like power metal getting super combo'd with a Wabbajack kick total ass, but the songs that just sound like normal old songs but without any hooks or emotion fall so flat that they leave Kiuas-shaped holes in the dirt.  I think overall, the album deserves a positive score simply because of how much I love the good songs, because this outside-the-box anarchism was pure lightning in a bottle that they only managed to recapture a handful of times.  Just go into it knowing that you're gonna have to keep a trained finger over the skip button.


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

10 YEAR REUNION: Persuader - Evolution Purgatory



I love this fucking album, really I do.  But because I love Evolution Purgatory so much, I have to admit its faults, so I'm just gonna knock those out of the way before I even get to the rest of it because I'm going to coat it in so much fanboy goo that it's probably insulting to the infertile.  The mix is kinda off, with the vocals and leads being WAY louder than anything else, which is kinda disappointing when the album is so jam packed full of excellent riffage.  Also the album does hit sort of a dead patch because the only two songs that are less than perfect are immediately one after the other in the tracklisting (those being "Passion/Pain" and "Raise Hell").

That's it!  Everything else is flawless so let's get on with it.

Persuader is a Swedish power metal band that got a lot of hype in the mid 2000s for reasons that are admittedly kind of untrue once you become more familiar with the band and style as a whole.  One of their big claims to fame is that the vocalist, Jens Carlsson, is an absolute dead ringer for the inimitable Hansi Kursch.  I'll touch on it more in detail later, but that's only half true.  Their other big hype generator is that they were heavy.  This was the power metal album to shove in people's faces for a long time whenever they'd complain about power metal being a dumb flowery style full of sissy nerds with squeaky voices doinking on about dragons and maidens with loads of slinky keyboards.  Again, this is kind of unfair because people who make that criticism are the same types of people who say all black metal is fuzzy tremolos and blastbeats with bad shrieking recorded on an answering machine or all death metal is cacophonous noise with talentless gurgling.  If you've ever listened to anything beyond Stratovarius or Nightwish you'd be well aware of that, but 2004 was the era when Blind Guardian and Helloween were putting out A Night at the Opera and Rabbit Don't Come Easy so I guess people just conveniently forgot Black Majesty existed and assumed everybody forgot how to riff.

Now, despite the frequent (incorrect) claim that Persuader was the only band kicking ass in the genre at the time, it does nothing to diminish the fact that it is heavy as shit.  Evolution Purgatory is pure fucking testosterone spraying out of every orifice with the force of a firehose.  These riffs hit so hard that you're in danger of breaking your jaw upon listening.  The vocals are so wild and insane that I'm pretty sure he's chewed off one of my fingers through the speakers.  The album as a whole carries such a hefty fucking set of testicles that the band has to carry them over their shoulder and use them to club everybody wearing a burlap tunic to death.  It's just this behemoth katamari made entirely of nutsacks and fists and its only goal is to punchfuck you until your brain leaks out of your armpits. 

What all that really means is that Persuader isn't afraid to amp up the punchiness and take influence from some of the harder forms of thrash and speed metal without ever losing their touch for the signature power metal strength of melodies.  Listen to something like "Sanity Soiled" or "Godfather", the riffs build around these vaguely-thrashy atom bombs that carry a surprising amount of weight.  The band doesn't often truly kick it into overdrive and fly through crazy high tempos, but that just means that these riffs just hit you even harder.  They don't shred you, they don't tear you apart, they pulverize you instead.  It takes a lot of skill to take a more rhythmic focus in such a melodic genre and not sound lazy.  Not many bands can focus on mid-to-high tempo open string chugging and sound ferocious instead of dull, but Persuader pulls it off effortlessly here.  But with that said, they really run the gamut of all possible influences for this particular subniche of power metal.  Opener "Strike Down" is a more traditional power metal affair, while "Fire at Will" is a thrash-infused murder fiesta, while "Masquerade" stands as probably the most melodic song on the record and still manages to have verse riffs that sound like the band is coming apart at the seams and the drummer completely forgets what to do so he just spazzes out, while "To the End" is just total high speed anarchy from the word go, it just never stops.  Every track has a new surprise for the listener and it perfectly straddles the line between eclectic and pandering, instead becoming the aforementioned abomination of balls and knuckles that rampages through the album like an avalanche run through your barbaric teenage fantasies.  Seriously, I'm sure "Fire at Will" manages to make everybody named Will run for their fucking lives during a live set, because I know I would have to restrain myself from taking the song literally and just letting adrenaline take over while I destroy everybody in the near vicinity.

I said previously that the mix tends to favor Jens a bit too much, but really he's such a highlight of the band that it's only a flaw in a technical sense.  Yes, he sounds like Hansi, but only on a surface level, once you think about it medium-hard he's actually quite unique.  Blind Guardian is obviously the chief influence and I don't think anybody will deny that, but he approaches his vocals in a completely different way.  Hansi is a bard, a crooner.  He could be vicious on the early albums when they were "young, fast, and freaky", in his own words, but ultimately he was a storyteller who simply added the appropriate amount of sinister gravel to his otherwise perfectly smooth voice when the song called for it.  His penchant for layering over himself ten quadrillion times made a great choir effect that added so much to their most epic tracks, especially from 1995 and onwards.  Jens doesn't do that shit.  No, he may have an extremely similar "default" voice and somehow managed to replicate his hilariously heavy German accent perfectly, but he approaches his craft with all the wild-eyed lunacy of a feral maniac.  He lacks some of Hansi's signature baritone, instead sounding like a shrill, cockeyed freak with blood seeping through his teeth.  He is constantly flying off the handle with freakish shrieks and deep growls, throwing harsh vocals into the mix with little restraint.  Take a gander at one of the album's highlights, "Turn to Dust".  Throughout the verses I swear he's cycling through every possible style of vocal inflection he can think of with each new line, going from full throated harsh screaming to scratchy high pitched screeching to deep death metal-esque bellows to almost soulful Hansi styled smoothness to everything in between, all within the course of one twelve second stanza.  When the vocals do layer on top of one another it always has more in common with a thrash gang shout than a power metal choir.  For all the similarities to Hansi that he has, he's has an undeniably more visceral and gritty voice.  He's by no means a better singer than Hansi (nobody is), but he's definitely a more insane one.  If the bridge in "Sanity Soiled" doesn't convince you, then you're beyond saving.  EVOLUSHON PURGATORAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYY

The band's greatest strength down the road, as they dropped their manic intensity, is undoubtedly their penchant for great melodies and choruses, and even though they're not the star of the show here, that strength is still showcased with aplomb.  Persuader is not complex art, they aim to rip your limbs off and beat you with them while being as stylish as possible, and they definitely accomplish that, but there's a surprising amount of depth and complexity to how they craft these insanely vicious singalong moments.  "Masquerade", "Turn to Dust", "To the End", "Raise Hell", all of them exemplify their dedication to forward propulsion, because they never rest on a hook and let it carry the chorus into your enduring memory.  Instead they do the vocal equivalent of how James Malone manages to play riffs and solos at the same time with Arsis and wind up smashing three different hooks together to create this unconventionally infectious style of chorus writing that sounds like a pre-chorus and two different choruses all roaring at you at the same time.  I can't get enough of this shit, I don't care if they're better on When Eden Burns, they pound so fucking hard when coupled with the frenetic intensity of the rest of the songs on Evolution Purgatory that they almost actually work better just due to the contrast of the nutso thrashing and vocal trapezery that leads up to the maddeningly catchy refrains.  

There's no real place to put this, but seriously, bonus points to the guys for being a power metal band in the mid 2000s and realizing they aren't Blind Guardian so they don't try to write any ballads.  Power metal bands suck shit at ballads and thankfully Persuader understood that and just stuck to meaty fuckin' riffs the whole time instead.

I feel like I might've just rambled gibbering idiocy the whole time I've been writing this, but if you take anything away from this review, take away that Persuader absolutely fucking smashed with Evolution Purgatory and became semi-underground treasures for a damn good reason.  This is power metal for Slayer fans, for people who would rather crush skulls in a desolate wasteland than be whisked off to magical lands.  I like my prancy fairy metal as much as the next dork, but sometimes this shit just hits the spot, and it's had its hooks in me for over a decade at this point.

(ps: his accent is hilarious, "sword" always sounds like "serd" and "dark" is "dork")


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Overkill - Horrorscope

The eulogy he would've wanted

If you've followed my reviews for a while, you know that I've covered Overkill plenty throughout my career.  You'll also know that I've never given them a positive review.  It's true!  Somehow I've just always gravitated towards knocking them down a few pegs because they had so many albums I hated that people seemed to give a pass, and it always bewildered me.  However, I'm not an insane person.  As a thrash fan, I know damn well that Overkill has plenty of great albums too, and I think it's about high time I covered one.  I promised a friend I would do so a long time ago.  And now, in my perpetual lateness, I'm going to fulfill my promise to my now-fallen compatriot, and give an honest review of his all time favorite album (or maybe second place next to some choice albums from Limbonic Art or Kalmah or something), Overkill's fifth and arguably finest album, Horrorscope.

The most obvious and major factor most people should realize when it comes to this album is the not-so-amicable departure of longtime axe-slinger Bobby Gustafson.  Overkill may be most obviously defined by Blitz's signature nasally snarl and D.D. Verni's mega-trebly *dween* bass tone, but Gustafson was a force to be reckoned with in the early days, churning out classic riffs left and right ("Hammerhead" from the debut contains one of my all time favorite riffs ever written) and writing a good chunk of the music, in particular the (frankly undeserving, but hey) classic The Years of Decay.  Him getting the boot should have been a huge blow to the band's sound, but Blitz and D.D. ain't no fuckin' quitters so they just regrouped and hammered out one of the monsters of early 90s thrash in retaliation. 

I've made this point over and over, but thrash was never great necessarily because of Overkill, instead Overkill was great because thrash as a genre was great.  This shows here, because the early 90s was a good era to be a product of the times as a thrash band.  The album I've always seen to be the parallel to Horrorscope is Kreator's seminal Coma of Souls, what with both having a really dry-yet-punchy production and a heightened influence of slower, more crushing moments in conjunction with their customary neck wrecking tempos.  This might seem immediately odd, because one of my biggest complaints with The Years of Decay is that there are too many slow songs that bog down the pace and break the flow, but the big difference here is that the slower tracks here are just flat out fucking excellent.  While something like "Skullkrusher" just sounded slow with little else in mind, something like "Horrorscope" or "New Machine" sounds like there's a clear goal at stake.  For example, something like the title track actually feels like a true marriage of thrash and doom metal, something the band had attempted before and would continue to attempt throughout their career and never quite nail again.  It's slow, but the riffs are menacing and pounding instead of meandering and dull.  It's still a driving force, and the extended one note breakdown just absolutely decimates with the addition of something simple like the haunting guitar melody in the background.  "Nice Day... for a Funeral" utilizes this same trick and it sort of astounds me that they never managed to make this work again, because it turns out this nebulous coagulation of melancholy and malice creates an incredibly neat effect.  "New Machine" may actually be my favorite of these tracks for an entirely different reason.  That one sounds more like a simplified version of "Who Tends the Fire" but works 1000% better simply because it gets to the point quicker and is carried by a super tight groove.  Yeah, this is basically just a groove metal track, something they'd tie their noose to before flailing around for 20 years and failing to write more than a handful good ones despite focusing entirely on them, but damn if their first foray into the style isn't a home run.  That main riff is an absolute banger.

However, this is motherfucking Overkill we're talking about here.  The fact that their constant experimentation with slower tempos finally worked this time is a nice bonus, but it's not what makes Horrorscope such a classic.  Hell no, it's their fervent dedication to punk-infused attitude entwined seamlessly with top-tier thrashing mayhem that made them stand out in the first place, and this is arguably their most consistently vicious offering of tracks in that vein.  "Coma" kicks things off with a nice clean intro to lull you into a false safety, because once the riffs start the band makes extra god damned clear that they mean fucking business.  I've never once heard the section with the double bass in the intro and not immediately sought out the nearest living thing and punched it to death.  The lion's share of the music here follows somewhat in line with The Years of Decay, what with the extremely obvious Metallica influence shining through with the monstrously chunky riffs and decidedly simplistic drumming carrying most of the songs.  It's like if that 1989 album was full of tracks like "Elimination" an "Evil Never Dies" all the way through, because it's just a non stop riff attack and it shows up most of their contemporaries.  Overkill was never the fastest or the heaviest of their peers, but this is one of those times when it didn't matter for them, and through the power of sheer songwriting fortitude they managed to deliver an unreal streak of excellence.  "Thanx for Nothin'" shoves their punk roots in your face without ever sacrificing an ounce of their osmium, and the chorus can whip any crowd into a frenzy effortlessly.  "Live Young, Die Free" and "Bare Bones" rip and tear through listeners as if they were paper, with riffs so simultaneously fast and chunky that they sound like tommy guns that fire raw steaks.  I could be a dick and point out that they both sound an awful lot like "Battery" but if you haven't noticed, the frequent Metallica-isms work to this album's benefit rather than its detriment.  Instead of sounding like a calculated knockoff of Master of Puppets like the previous album did, this sounds like the lost album recorded in lieu of And Justice for All.  It's a logical continuation of what they were doing before, except this time they decided to push further towards the extreme end of the spectrum instead of settling on an easier-to-digest groove.  No, this is one of the gloriously few times that Overkill found themselves truly pushing an envelope, because this is by far the hungriest they've ever sounded.  As a result, Horrorscope is probably the most Overkill album that Overkill ever released.  This is the one where they truly solidified their identity to me, and it's a damn shame that they abandoned it so quickly.

There are nitpicks but they're just that, nitpicks.  Blitz doesn't sound quite as manic as the albums from the Three Bobbys era, and he's really the only musical aspect of the band that didn't make a massive improvement.  There aren't any moments like that insanely tense crescendo in "Evil Never Dies" here, instead he just does his thing in a fairly utilitarian manner.  Fortunately that's not really a big deal because even when he's in pure workman mode and giving the guitars the spotlight, he stands out for his iconic vocal delivery alone.  The solos aren't quite as memorable either, but that's to be expected because even when Overkill finally got their shit together and released another great album 19 years later, they never fully managed to replace Gustafson's absolute wizardry on the fretboard.  "Infectious" is a kind of meh song and the Edgar Winter cover is entirely pointless as well, but overall that's really all the negative things I have to say about this album. 

Feel the Fire will always be the band's finest hour to me, but their first two albums have a pretty different approach than what came afterwards, and if you want to split hairs so finely that you're in danger of nuclear fission, Horrorscope is unquestionably the highlight of the second phase of the band's first era.  This was the sound of a band in lockstep with one another, taking a brutal departure in stride instead of reeling and scrambling to make something work in his absence.  I know Horrorscope is a very well respected album, but it deserves even more than it gets, which is saying a lot.  This is 53 minutes of non stop action that feels like it flies by in 30.  Overkill wouldn't be this exciting and adrenaline-inducing for nearly two solid decades, and it's a great swansong for the classic era of the genre in general.  Everybody should be familiar with it, and if you're not, fucking fix that right the hell now, because this is a stone cold classic.

RIP Diamhea, you were a monster truck that walked like a man.  I'm sorry you aren't here to see me make an attempt to fulfill a dumb promise I made purely out of respect for such an insanely dedicated individual.  Hopefully I made good on my end.  You are the Beef Castle that took a lot of shit in stride and deserve all the credit in the world for making this site run as smoothly as it has for the past five years you were on the team.  Oh, and never forget: !!!FUCK YOU!!!


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Euphoreon - Ends of the Earth

Thinking of titles gets harder by the day

All it took to interest me in Euphoreon was an offhand comment about how they sound like "Wintersun if they were actually good".  My boundless hatred for Wintersun has become something of a claim to fame for myself, but I've always vocally given credit where credit is due, and readily admit that they have a few incredible songs and could genuinely be an amazing band if they consistently played to their strengths instead of bloated everything to death.  If anybody else is touted to be exactly what it is I truly want out of my arch nemesis, then of course I'm willing to give them a shot. 

Euphoreon... well isn't quite that, because their influences are definitely more varied than that one particular Finnish institution, but they're solid regardless.

Ends of the Earth doesn't really break any new ground but they play this distinctly European style of melodeath pretty well.  Instead of really aping Wintersun's sound like I keep reading about, more accurately they sound like something of a hybrid between the less insane non-Bodom Bodom clones that started gaining traction shortly after they rose to prominence (like Skyfire and Kalmah) and the more melancholic and riffless style of melodeath that Insomnium helped popularize.  I guess you could argue that this really isn't so different from something like Frosttide but the first thing I thought when giving this album its first spin was how much it made me want to listen to Be'lakor.  I haven't seen them namedropped much around the band, but most of these melodies that carry the songs are straight out of Stone's Reach or Of Breath and Bone.  Hell, "Euphoria" almost uses the exact same main theme as "Abeyance" note-for-note.  That style of melody where the guitar quickly palm mutes an open high string and intermittently baps a few notes up the neck is abused to no end here.  The addition of epic keys and choirs is the one thing that truly sets Euphoreon apart from the style they're so firmly rooted in, and it's likely why they're more immediately compared to what seems to actually be their secondary influence.  Well, that and the vocals, since the Insomnium style has a tendency to feature incredibly talented growlers with destructively deep registers that would absolutely murder in more brutal styles, whereas this duo aims for a more ghoulish brittleness ala Kalmah's first three albums. 

The songs themselves here are, all told, fairly simple despite the average length falling a few seconds short of seven minutes, but they do a good job of not getting boring, exactly.  It's sort of odd, because despite not being boring, they aren't quite engaging all the time either.  There are a few highlights, sure, but "Euphoria" kicks off the album on a fairly humdrum note, and I don't think I've ever actually noticed the point where "Cravenness" gives way to "Oblivion".  Despite that, the album tends to get better as it goes along and then starts wearing on you as it begins to wrap up, since there isn't a whole lot of variation between the tracks and the idea of mid-paced riffless melodeath with good melodies festooned in booming keys can only work for so long before you just start to tune it all out.  So naturally, Ends of the Earth hits its stride between the second and fourth tracks before becoming a bit too samey to stay consistently engaged, despite a few standout moments in the back half in "Cravenness" and "The Grand Becoming".  The title track is one of the few that truly does sound like Wintersun to me, with the heightened aggression calling to mind a more exciting version of  Jari's least-bad-but-still-bad song, "Battle Against Time".  "Mirrors" in particular really stands out for the truly astounding lead melody that never really stops careening around the track but never gets old either.  I could probably listen to it forever.

The problem is that, on my second spin through the album, that melody finally clicked in my head and I realized I have been listening to it forever.  It is, almost note-for-note, the "chorus" melody in Joe Satriani's "Crushing Day".  I never really talk about him because he's rarely relevant to what I typically write about, but I'm a big fan of Satch.  Surfing with the Alien is one of the all time greatest guitar albums ever penned, and his penchant for ear catching melodies in between his signature shredding is exactly why Satch stands so far above most of his contemporaries to me.  On one hand this means Euphoreon picked a damn good melody to nick, but on the other hand that marks two melodies (along with the aforementioned Be'lakor "homage" in the opener) that I fairly quickly noticed were borrowed with suspicious similarity.  Obviously it could just be coincidence, but now every time I listen to this I'm doing so with heightened scrutiny, seeing if there's anything else I might've missed, and everything I don't immediately recognize is given something of a side-eye glance because now I can't help but wonder if some other, better artist already wrote it.  Y'all better hope you don't get too popular now, because Uncle Joe has proven himself to be the litigious type if he feels he's been ripped off, just ask Coldplay how borrowing the melody to "Flying in a Blue Dream" worked out for them.

Overall though it's not really the biggest deal, and it'd be massively hypocritical for a Gamma Ray fan like myself to write off a band for getting a bit too ballsy with riff/melody borrowing.  Ends of the Earth is a quite solid melodeath album with a grandiose atmosphere.  There's pretty much no chance it'll find itself on several year end best-of lists in 2018, but I certainly do like their approach and will surely keep listening to this as the year goes on.  If this appeals to Wintersun fans I certainly would recommend Euphoreon to them, because the less people listening to Wintersun, the better.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Genocide Pact - Order of Torment

*Eyes Turkey*

I don't really know what to make of this album, and it's not because it's so weird and/or varied that it discombobulates me.  The problem is that I just think it's really hard to have an opinion on something that more or less doesn't really exist.

Genocide Pact isn't necessarily a bad band, they're just an extraordinarily bland one.  Order of Torment is pretty much just mid paced death metal with not much else going on inside itself.  The songs all groove along at a head-nodding pace with a few breaks of speed and one or two parts that I think are supposed to be doomy but in reality are just slow, but that's pretty much the long and short of the entire ordeal.  The peripheral aspects of the band are all just fine.  The guitar tone is suitably beefy and the drums hit like a truck, but the songs they actually create with this sound are totally static.  This is probably a weird thing to notice, but despite the occasional tempo changes, the songs all tend to sound the same because there is one type of riff they abuse into fucking oblivion.  Strum a quarter or half note, and then follow the next measure and a half with eighth or sixteenth note palm mutes over a grooving double bass.  I realize this is probably a dumb thing to criticize because it's not even really a technique, but pay attention.  It's constant.  Every single track seems to be based around this ultra basic riff.  The tempos change sometimes, the drum fills vary, and the fast portion of the riff is sometimes a bit more technical but it's all the same thing. 

This stye of death metal (specifically mid/low pace chugs and grooving double bass) can work just fine.  There are plenty of classic bands who don't blast along at top speed the whole time.  Look at Bolt Thrower, Jungle Rot, Asphyx, and especially Autopsy.  It's not necessarily uncommon, but I think it's fairly difficult to make it engaging throughout an entire 40 minute album.  What those bands all have in spades that Order of Torment very glaringly lacks are twofold: engaging hooks and a sense of savagery.  There's a sort of danger and outright meanness attached to the classic mid paced death metal bands, and all of them are unabashedly unafraid to throw memorable hooks at you and make something catchy in addition to brutal.  Instead what Genocide Pact reminds me most of are post-World Demise Obituary, where the band just writes gluttonous mid-paced drudgery with no urgency or vigor.  It's a bunch of sound that just sorta happens and that's it.  But even then Obituary at least has the X-factor of John Tardy, who is an insanely iconic vocalist who helps even their shitty songs sound absolutely fucking killer in a live setting.  Genocide Pact doesn't even have that, as Tim's vocals are just a nondescript low growl that complements precisely nothing.

There are things to like here, but admittedly not many.  "Pain Reprisal" has the standout section of the album with the homage to "Hammer Smashed Face" near the halfway point, but it's pretty telling that the best thing about the album is the thing that reminds me of Cannibal Corpse, a better band in every conceivable way.  "Structural Dissolution" is also notable because it has the most extreme variance between tempos, and in a way it sort of accidentally highlights the band's greatest weakness, which is the static nature of the songs.  When they build on a slow section and then cut loose and lose their fucking minds in a blasting segment, it really gets the blood pumping.  It builds and releases and that's exactly what exciting death metal bands can do.  If they did this sort of thing more often they'd likely be a thousand times more entertaining.  But as it stands, it's a woeful few times throughout the album that they actually break their chains and turn in something with some actual fucking adrenaline behind it.  This is an opening band, not a headliner.  Genocide Pact is the group that goes on when people are still shuffling through the doors and getting beers, because no matter how heavy these songs are, they don't contain much of anything worth pricking up your ears and paying more attention to.


Saturday, May 5, 2018

Jess and the Ancient Ones - The Horse and Other Weird Tales

Flower... "power"?

In the hallowed halls of metal history, this style of retro-occult-psychedelic-(sometimes)-doom-rock flamed out especially quickly, earning itself a spot next to rethrash and salad shooter tech death in terms of the almost hilariously imbalanced hype-to-longevity ratio (mark my words, synthwave has a year left at most, it will be looked at like Skrillex-style brostep by 2020).  Like most fads, it bloated dangerously quickly, and got too big too quickly, with a few genuine greats struggling to breathe beneath the infinitely expanding quagmire of mediocre nobodies ripping off established classics.  This psychedoomic style is no exception.  Year of the Goat was phenomenal with Lucem Ferre and Angel's Necropolis but I haven't kept up with them since, I can never remember which one I liked between The Devil's Blood and Blood Ceremony, probably whichever one was less metallic, and uhh... Jex Thoth was okay maybe?  It's only been like five years and I've already forgotten pretty much everything about the scene, that's how amazingly quickly it dissipated into total irrelevance.

But the one who always stood out to me was, without a shadow of a doubt, Jess and the Ancient Ones.  You could easily accuse me of just being a dumbass headbanger and latching onto the band with the most ridiculously badass metal background, but I pinky swear that I was already a big fan cranking the debut and Astral Sabbat five times a day by the time I found out that the band included Antti Fucking Boman (aka the interplanetary eldritch calamity that gurgled Demilich to the level of underground legends) and half of the band was also in motherfucking Deathchain (who you may remember as the band that wrote fucking "Napalm Satan").  These guys could be peddling soundcloud trap and I'd be willing to pretend I loved it based on my unending adulation of the members' pedigrees alone. The influence of their decidedly death metal background is more or less entirely absent in JATAO, but it doesn't matter, they've earned my respect so I'd've been all over this band before even hearing a single note if I had discovered this information earlier than I had.

But none of that matters, because almost as soon as I was armed with this knowledge, the band... well, kinda got shit.  Second Psychedlic Coming just went in one ear and out the other so cleanly that even after a few years and probably a dozen spins I've forgotten every single note.  When their third album here, The Horse and Other Weird Tales dropped, I didn't even notice or care.  I only decided to give this a whirl because I got the itch to hear the self titled again the other day and figured this at the very least deserved a listen.  And well, I may not exactly regret listening to it, I certainly don't feel like my life has been enriched in any way by catching up to the band.

Musically, this is as light as they've ever been.  And there's nothing wrong with that really, they were never particularly heavy in the first place, never reaching towards anything more threatening than Blue Oyster Cult for inspiration, but they undeniably had something of an edge that has since been excised entirely.  The occult angle seems to have been replaced entirely with just general flower power psychedelia, taking more inspiration from oriental rugs and incense than pagan rituals in a black forest.  Again, there's nothing really wrong with that outside of personal preference.  I really do miss tracks like "Prayer for Death and Fire" and "Come Crimson Death" but they never really needed to look towards the devil to be great.  If anything, it just shows where their music was going to go as well, because that rough edge that kept the songs a little more dangerous than their contemporaries has been sanded completely clean with the expulsion of Lucifer from their writing room.  Now it's just Jefferson Airplane and The Doors and uhhh... I dunno, The 13th Floor Elevators?  This isn't my style, sue me for not knowing.  The point is, this is pure 60s psyche rock now, drenched in hallucinogens and thus producing music that is far more swirly than straight ahead.

The problem with this is that their average song length has since been cut down by like 60%.  So now that all the real riffs are gone and the band seems more prone to just jamming on Manzarek lines and LSD, but the songs themselves have settled in the 2-3 minute range.  Nothing has time to develop anymore, which is baffling because they were really good at lengthy songs before.  "Sulfur Giants", "More Than Living", and "Come Crimson Death" all ran on an average of around 13 minutes or so, and all of them felt larger than life.  They were sprawling, twisty experiences that built upon themselves and eventually exploded into colorful ejaculations of triumph.  Pardon how absolutely fucked up this sentence is going to be, but one of Jess's main appeals was just how gloriously she would climax.  Even their shorter songs built towards something, and when they reached their apex it would be absolutely astounding.  They've already proven that they're at their best when allowing their songs a lot of time to breathe and develop and form lives of their own, so how the hell did the band decide that it would be a good idea to start writing in a more jammy style while suddenly adhering strictly to a more traditional rock format structure-wise?  In the old days, the songs that had a more "normal" structure and approach were still hovering around the six minute mark, and tracks like "Astral Sabbat", "Twilight Witchcraft", and especially "Prayer for Death and Fire" were 1000x more engaging and exciting than go-nowhere nonsense with an eighth of the content in half the time like "Return to Hallucinate", "Your Exploding Heads" or "Minotaure".  The only songs where this really works are "Shining" and "Here Comes the Rainbow Mouth", and that has more to do with the songwriting in general just being tighter and catchier on those songs.

I've gone this far without really addressing Jess herself, and that's because if I had brought her up first I'd have basically nothing else to talk about.  She is this album, and that's the long and short of it.  The songs being less guitar driven seem to be done with the intent of giving her even more of the stage, because she is mixed obnoxiously high and given center spotlight at every turn.  The instrumental segments don't really shine when they finally do get the spotlight because now it feels like the band is almost uncomfortable without her howling over them.  Don't get me wrong, her voice is still excellent, and it's a bit smokier and sultrier this time around, which admittedly does mesh with the more laid back instrumentation than her exuberant wailing of the past.  This is the sound of a woman matured, but that does also contribute to the more exciting nature of their earlier work being so noticeably absent.  That youth was enrapturing, and this more weathered performance works fine for what it is (and again, the actual sound of her voice is still stellar), but it ultimately winds up being yet another contributing factor to why the band has fallen off so hard in recent years. 

I don't claim to actually know the inner workings of the band behind the scenes.  I don't know who the primary songwriter is, it stands to reason it could be Jess since, ya know, the band is named after her, or possibly Abraham since the keys drive the music so much (though I must admit that despite my overall distaste for the album, I can't get enough of how fucking groovy these basslines are), but whoever it is I think they need to chill out and refocus themselves.  They have strengths that they're perplexingly neglecting to utilize.  JATAO is great at longer songs that grow throughout their runtimes, they're not quite so good at trying to be trippy and succinct at the same time.  While this has grown on me somewhat, it looks like I'm gonna have to just stick to the self titled and Astral Sabbat whenever I want my fix of this style, because what they're doing right now just isn't working on a fundamental level.

I don't really have a good way to end this review, so I'll just point out that Jess's accent is still hilarious and her pronunciation of "eyes" will always sounds like "ass".


Thursday, May 3, 2018

Astronoid - Air

I waited a full day to publish this because I couldn't think of a title

Just look at this bullshit.  Look at that fucking watercolor album art, look at that wussy title, look at the band photo.  A bunch of pencil-necked coastal hipsters with big beards, suspenders, square glasses and plain-ass striped shirts?  I bet every last one of these losers owns a fixie and at least one Radiohead vinyl.  How dare they try to co-opt metal while peddling this weak dreampop hipster bullshit!  I bet they tour with Arcade Fire.  This is the same shit that made Deafheaven so insulting!

Well, if y'all remember, I actually like Deafheaven's endlessly controversial Sunbather, and in turn, I also like Astronoid's debut, Air.

I'm not going to sit here and pretend that these dudes have anything even remotely approaching metal cred.  Air is almost exactly as light as the title implies, focusing on waify, floaty soundscapes akin to what Devin Townsend puts out at his lightest, with seemingly random blastbeats and zippy guitar lines underneath.  Take a listen to something like "Up and Atom" or "Resin", this is cut from pretty much exactly the same cloth as Sunbather, albeit assembled in a much more coherent and less segmented way.  Despite the blasting and tremolo lines, it's all used to an effect closer to a sailboating excursion than anything menacing.  There's no sense of danger here, there's nothing unhinged or scary present.  Brett Boland's vocals are probably the most saccharine and least threatening thing I've ever heard in the context of a metal album before.  They have negative grit, just floating pleasantly above the music in a very dreamlike atmosphere.  They're often labeled as "emo", but I know emo gets misused just as often as "techno" does so I'm not going to exactly go that route, but there's no denying that they're very emotive and pleasant.  You can easily argue that they have no place in this overarching genre, but I think they work well for what Astronoid is doing.

What makes this album fascinating to me is that it seems just sort of backwards in everything it does.  It's aesthetically the complete opposite of black metal, despite utilizing so many of the genres tropes.  It's pretty obvious that the band didn't form until after Alcest and Deafheaven and the like rose to prominence.  You could argue that this is just a continuation of what Lantlos and Fen were doing in the early 2010s, but I'm more willing to point the finger at the hipstery "we play metal but don't actually like metal" bands of the Pitchfork ilk.  Their inspiration for the (admittedly constant) heavy parts clearly come from the least metal metal bands to ever play metal.  It's more Amesoeurs than Darkthrone, is what I'm saying.  Even one of the most basic workaday models for this style of metal comes from the idea of basing the sound on calming swells of post rock melodic climaxes with a backdrop of the occasional minor key tremolo riffs and blastbeats, but they even seem to do that backwards.  Astronoid is based instead on those metal elements, with the busy percussion and surprisingly dexterous guitar lines forming the true meat of the album, with the dreamy pop vocals and flittery melodies coming in second, mere peripherals to the frantic rhythm section.  It's all very fast, but it's completely devoid of aggression, instead coming off as pure desperation.  Just like Harakiri for the Sky, it's both fast and slow at the same time and spends a refreshing amount of effort on making the riffs themselves just as interesting as the melodies.

As I'm writing this, I have my balcony door open (which is right next to my computer), and it's currently storming like a motherfucker.  Rain is billowing sideways, wind is howling, heavy and humid atmosphere is being intermittently broken up by sharp, cool blasts of air, there's very distant thunder rumbling and the occasional flash of lightning, and this is all, honestly, a very fitting backdrop for Air.  With a title as wispy as fucking Air coupled with such a bright, lively, and serene album cover, you figure this would be a good match for a pleasant summer afternoon.  But no, there's something about this cacophony occurring mere feet from where I currently sit in safety that compliments the album very well.  It meshes with the earthy forces of nature outside in a weirdly pleasant yet discordant way.  The music itself isn't malicious or destructive in any way, but it doesn't ignore the vaguely chaotic underpinning of nature itself.  The rain is crashing down in sheets but no trees are blowing over, and this album is similar in that regard, it's soothing with its veneer of welcoming safety, and the ill-fitting fast metal underneath the dreamy soundscapes hits me the same way a rainstorm hits me.

I've said a hundred times before that most Pitchfork-approved metal bands suck shit, but I'm learning that it's mostly the doomy stuff I hate.  When that bastion of snooty baristas latches onto something that melds dreamy chillwave atmosphere with some semblance of "black" metal (this is the first time I've ever been uncomfortable using the term, there really ought to be a different descriptor for something this wholly lacking in vitriol), I... kinda really dig it.  At its core, Air is a metal album written by indie kids who don't actually know anything about metal (total speculation on my part, but I feel like you'd never write a song like "Tin Foil Hats" or "Homesick" if you were worshipping at the altar of Beherit), and in doing so they wound up crafting a surprisingly well made experiment in clashing sounds.  If I had any credibility as a metal critic before today, it's now pretty much entirely shattered.  And I'm okay with that, I'd rather embrace something like Astronoid than pretend I hate it simply because it's fundamentally un-headbangable.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Harakiri for the Sky - Arson

Through the darkness of future's past...

I'll admit that this is somewhat outside of my usual wheelhouse.  When I reach for black metal, I tend to prefer it to keep itself far away from the post rock/shoegaze trappings that have become so ubiquitous in the atmospheric camps as of late.  I have soft spots for Altar of Plagues and Wolves in the Throne Room but for the most part it just generally bores me to tears.  This is why the Austrian duo, Harakiri for the Sky, is such a huge surprise to me, because I love the absolute shit out of Arson.

From what little I can gather, most fans of the band find their fourth album here to be somewhat of a disappointment because very little has changed throughout their discography, but honestly this just tells me that I'm missing three other incredible albums by starting this late.  On paper, Harakiri for the Sky plays a fairly by-the-numbers brand of post-black, consisting mostly of melancholic melodies layered over simplistic mid paced riffs with distant vocals playing second fiddle to the melodies, but where I think this band excels is actually through their other fiddles.  The band takes the Anaal Nathrakh route of the two-man-band ideal by having M.S. handle all of the instrumentation while J.J. just stands there and screams, but I feel like choosing to take on a session drummer for Arson (the current drummer of Septicflesh) was probably a huge boon to the overall feel of the album, because he absolutely fucking murders his performance.  He seems to have an almost Kollias-level addiction to speed in his lower half, because almost the entirety of the album is comprised of him blasting his fucking heart out, and even when he slows down it's only through his upper half, as his feet continue pummeling away at insane speeds.  It lends a frantic dissonance to the experience that I adore, changing what would otherwise sound like "I'm dying and I'm very sad about it" into "I'm dying and I don't want to fucking die please help me."  Nothing about this sounds like a triumph, it's all instead a mournful dirge played with incongruent ferocity, and it's an extremely cool effect.  I'll take this speedy and riff-heavy approach over the weepy bleakness of Alcest any day.

Another thing that absolutely deserves mention is how brutally long every song is without ever feeling truly drawn out.  It never falls into mindless repetition, with each track being a dynamic journey complemented by seemingly dozens of riffs and patterns.  The most impressive parts of the band to me are the more peripheral aspects, but the songs all live and die by the strength of the melodies regardless.  There really aren't any moments where I find myself bored or wishing a certain section would hurry up and end, instead finding myself enraptured in gorgeous clean and/or soaring guitar lines over the frantic rhythm section.  It's pretty impressive to have the shortest song still fall north of the eight minute mark and never fall into a rut.  The meaty production helps a lot in this regard, because even if you do tune out, it remains quite full and never really results in passive background noise.

There are a few problems here though, and admittedly they're all fairly large.  For one, while the songs themselves are very dynamic and shift through many different sections with appropriately intense climaxes, they all tend to shift through the same dynamic.  The tempos are almost entirely dependent on a brisk mid-tempo or a desperate blast, the moods are all melancholic and depressive, and there are very few truly unique sections throughout the runtime (like the absolutely crushing quasi-breakdown riff in the climax of "Fire, Walk with Me" or the hopelessly gorgeous outro of "You Are the Scars").  There's no fully calm song nor any fully blast heavy full-metal-assault.  It's one mood, that's all you get.  I've skimmed a few reviews of the album online and many of them mention an almost Korpiklaani-esque folk metal section somewhere in "Stillborn" but that's... not at all true?  I think they're talking about the section at roughly 2:30 but really it's just the same basic thing they do for the rest of the album, just with a slightly more active guitar line.  I guess if you really squint your ears it sounds a bit like early Ensiferum but that's really stretching it.  What the hell?  Did one reviewer throw that reference in as a joke and everybody parroted it without actually listening? 

It's also the opposite of succinct, with every song avoiding the problem of needless repetition but still following a similar structure throughout lengthy runtimes.  Including the Graveyard Lovers cover from the digital version (which I'm using to review), it clocks in at an excruciating 71 minutes.  With the songs all being so similar, this is one of the few albums where I would actually say that putting it on shuffle and listening to roughly three songs before just moving on to something else wouldn't devalue the experience at all.  That's about all it takes to get a full idea of what the album contains.  The first handful of tracks seem to have more individual standout sections but the last three tracks are probably tighter and more consistent on the whole, but even then it's a negligible difference.  "Tomb Omnia" and "Voidgazer" aren't really all that different from "Heroin Waltz" and "You Are the Scars" despite this distinction. 

There's really no place to put this, but the vocals are worth noting as a flaw as well.  J.J. isn't a bad vocalist by any means but he's noticeably the only truly static element of the band.  His screams are all a monotone bellow, with no variation whatsoever between all of his lines.  He hardly even has a "metal" voice, entirely devoid of black metal screeching or howling.  It's just a gruff holler, and it wouldn't sound too out of place in a particularly moody (post) hardcore band.  I don't particularly mind it, personally, but it's noticeable and worth mentioning.

Now, here's where we peel back the curtain a bit and see how all of this relates to my own personal philosophy on music and reviewing.  To me, music is art.  There are different kinds of experiences and goals that any given metal band will tackle, but it's art all the same.  Taken as a piece of art as opposed to a clinical deconstruction of the elements at play within Arson, all of those flaws amount to essentially bupkis.  Yeah the songs are all fairly samey and it's agonizingly long, but... man who gives a shit?  I don't need a fuckin' math problem to tell me how much I enjoy something.  If you plug in the individual components and weigh them however you choose to weigh them, you're going to encounter a lot of negatives that drag the score down.  If those negatives actually do impact your enjoyment then hey, more power to you, but for me they just... don't.  If I used some sort of formula to score this album, it'd land somewhere probably as low as the high fifties or low sixties.  But in my heart of hearts, if I just ask myself "How much do I like this album?", the answer is a very simple "A shitload."